Reviewing the Literature

How do I understand what is already known about my research topic and what new research is needed?

Key Points

  • Conducting a thorough review of relevant scientific literature is an essential first step in any research project.
  • Keywords can be used to search online databases to find evidence related to your research question.
  • Analyzing and understanding the evidence can be used to identify knowledge gaps and help your team refine your research question so that it fills in gaps in your area of interest. Conducting a review of the literature is a skill that gets easier with practice!

Helpful Links, Videos and online courses


  • Literature Reviews
    • The Writing Center at the University of North Carolina presents a wonderful resource regarding the basics of literature review, with definitions and helpful tips.
  • Ten Simple Rules for Writing a Literature Review
    • A straightforward resource published in PLOS Computational Biology that offers 10 rules for starting a literature search and review.
  • Writing a Literature Review
    • The University of Arizona Writing Center puts together helpful tips, sample literature reviews, and a tutorial video for writing a literature review.
  • Introduction to Literature Reviews
    • The Monash University has prepared an interactive and practically applicable resource to teach new researchers about literature reviews.
  • Library Resources for Research
    • This University of Virginia School of Nursing/Claude Moore Health Sciences Library webpage contains external links to many resources, including databases that may be used in a literature search, as well as citation management devices and other useful tools.


  • Writing a Literature Review
    • The Writing Center at the University of Louisville provides this 10-minute introductory video on writing a literature review, describing its purpose, an example, and identifying gaps in the literature.
  • How to Write a Literature Review Fast
    • This six-minute video gives 6 guidelines for writing a literature review efficiently.

Online Courses

  • Understanding Research Methods
    • A 6-hour Coursera course on research methods, including information about conducting literature reviews.
    • Note: an account is required. The course is entirely online. Viewing the content is free, but there is a fee for getting grades and certificates.

Templates and examples

Relevant Publications

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: I do not have access to academic research databases through my institution. How can I do a review of the literature without access to published academic journal articles?

A: This is an important question. In some cases, publishers of academic journal articles require users to have access through an expensive subscription paid for by their institution or employer. Otherwise, the individual user must pay a fee for access to the full text of the article. This can be a real barrier to conducting research for low- and middle-income countries (LMIC). Here, we offer a list of some helpful resources.

  • The Hinari Access to Research for Health Programme, a World Health Organization program, aims to improve online access to academic journals for local, non-profit institutions in LMIC. To find out if your institution might be eligible for affordable access to academic journals through this program, go to the Hinari Eligibility webpage.
  • In 2013, the Cochrane Collaboration Information Retrieval Methods Group updated a resource list for finding research relevant to low- and middle-income countries (LMIC) for the purpose of conducting reviews of the literature. The resource list can be found here. We have been unable to find an update of this list more recent than August 2013.
  • One resource specific to the Nepal context is Nepal Journals Online (NepJOL), which provides online access to academic journal articles published in Nepal by participating journals. NepJOL includes publications from a range of disciplines. The NepJOL website offers a searching tool to help users identify relevant content.
  • Often academic journal articles are being published in “Open Access” formats, which means that users are able to access the content online, without cost. Visit the Directory of Open Access Journals to learn more, and to explore content using their searching tool. One example of an open-access journal is the Indian Journal of Palliative Care.
  • Google Scholar is another helpful, free database that can be used to search for scientific literature.

Pitfalls to Avoid

Potential Pitfall: Getting overwhelmed and going down a rabbit hole.

  • Solution: write down your research question and refer to it often.

Potential Pitfall: Not looking at most currently published findings.

  • Solution: use filters to narrow your search by date range. Limit the search to the past 5 years, or the past 10 years, and review those search results first.